EDWARD MELCARTH: Points of View
This survey of paintings, drawings, and sculpture by Edward Melcarth is a homecoming of sorts, a chance to assess and appreciate the Louisville-born artist (1914-1973) who left Kentucky to pursue his personal interests and career. Working in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and later Pop Art, Melcarth maintained a commitment to figurative imagery and techniques gleaned from the Old Masters.
Points of View looks at Melcarth’s subject matter and his exploration of masculinity, religion, portraiture, drug use, and the American scene. In both small and large canvases, the artist offers dramatic compositions, positioning bodies as interlocking elements or seen from unique perspectives. His models were often street trade from 42nd Street in Manhattan, shown performing blue collar jobs and sporting muscular physiques. They exude seductive and self-aware attitudes, made more overt by the artist’s suggestive titles. These works share affinities with equally erotic depictions of sailors, prize-fighters, and lumberjacks by the American realists Paul Cadmus and Marsden Hartley.
Religious stories including the raising of Lazarus and the Last Supper are subverted by Melcarth’s portraits of Christ and the apostles. Unlike traditional depictions, the men are beardless and youthful, with hard looks and tousled hair. There is no trace of idealization in his 1962 canvas, Last Supper, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fresco. It seems more like an unruly encounter at a diner or bar, with competitive gestures, spilled drinks, and uneaten food.
Melcarth’s images of men and women riding motorbikes, enjoying the beach, and participating in leisure activities seem to revel in looking and being looked at. The artist is clearly enthusiastic about the process of representing human desire and aggression. His depiction of men shooting up or lost in euphoric drug-fueled states will take on added relevance in the context of the opioid epidemic taking place in the U.S. today, with a particularly devastating effect in Kentucky.
Edward Melcarth was born in Louisville, KY, in 1914, to a wealthy Jewish family named Epstein (he would later change his last name). He studied at Harvard University and Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 in Paris, a notable print studio where European modernists gathered and produced limited editions. His friends and patrons included the Guggenheims—he designed Peggy’s famous bat wing sunglasses—Gore Vidal, and Tennessee Williams. He taught at Parsons School of Design, Columbia University, the University of Washington, the University of Louisville, and the Art Students League. Melcarth died in Venice, Italy in 1973. His works are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Arts, Boston; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Kinsey Institute; and the Forbes Collection.
Special thanks go to Dr. Jonathan Coleman of the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive for bringing Melcarth’s work to the Museum’s attention and for providing scholarship and enthusiasm about the artist’s work. The exhibition would not be possible without his help and the generous loans from the Forbes family and the efforts of efforts of Bonnie Kirschstein and Elizabeth Marwell.
EDWARD MELCARTH, Last Supper, circa 1960, oil on canvas. The Forbes Collection, New York
EDWARD MELCARTH, Rape of the Sabines, oil on canvas.
Collection of Steve Forbes, New York
EDWARD MELCARTH, All Night Movie, oil on canvas.
The Forbes Collection, New York
EDWARD MELCARTH, Excavation, oil on canvas.
Collection of Timothy Forbes, New York
EDWARD MELCARTH, Amendment, carved wood.
The Forbes Collection, New York
top image: EDWARD MELCARTH, Junkie with Open Shirt (detail), oil on canvas, The Forbes Collection, New York
Tues. - Fri.: 10am to 5 pm
Sat.: 12pm to 5pm
Sundays, Mondays, and University Holidays: CLOSED